Can we consider Islam to be a local religion in Southeast Asia? What can scholarship tell us about this?
As we consider the adoption of Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia, it is a question of interest whether we can consider Islam to be a local religion of South East Asia. We will explore the question of how Islam came to the Malay Archipelago, an introduction that seems to have been a very peaceful one. Islam can be traced back as a wide spread religion as early as in the 15th century. Islam came to the archipelago through a peaceful adoption, in what we believe can be seen at the work of the Sufis evangelizing. In today’s cultural evidence the shrines as well as the Islamic music and popular dakwah literature, can be seen as a living evidence that Islam is very much a living religion of the archipelago.
As we approach the question of whether Islam can be considered a local religion in South East Asia it is important to consider that we can only explore the locality of the Malay Archipelago. South East Asia is the region consisting of the countries of Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines, a region that presents a particular ethnographic and religious interest and cohesion. It is home to many cultures and religions and Islam is predominantly the religion of two of these countries: Indonesia and Malaysia. As we consider then Islam in South East Asia it is first important to localize it in the Malay Archipelago. So to localize Islam in all of South East Asia would be an exaggeration. Yet Indonesia today with a Muslim population of 220 million people is the largest Muslim country in the world, 87% of its population (202 million) identifying as Muslims, and Malaysia adds another 30 million people (60% or them, or 19.5 mil identifying as Muslim) to this mix of Islamic population in South East Asia.
When considering the question of when historically the acceptance of the Islamic faith was introduced, Berg in the article “The Islamization of Java” explores the question of how Islam came to Indonesia, as Islam is believed to be widespread in Indonesia as early as the 14th century. One theory presented is that it was the merchants that wanted Muslim wives that slowly lead the conversion. Another theory is that it was those leaders that were in search of a following that introduced Islam. Moreover Berg explores the idea that some of the stories are fabricated to construct a cultural past, in particular the ancestry and lineage of Agung and his conquest history as well as interactions with the Dutch. Through his expose Berg explores the idea that culture has a complicated structure and dynamics and is created to hold unity through sometimes historical and other times embellished threads. It is important to keep this embellishment of the history as we explore the historical evidence. There seem to be historical evidence suggesting the first contact with Islam had been through Indian merchants as early as 674 A.D, and that over the centuries they established merchant communities and Muslim families. (Ahmad, p134-135). In the debate of whether it was the merchants themselves or rulers in search of a following that introduced Islam, Ahmad suggest that “the acceptance of Islam by men of eminence was likely to induce their followers as well”, bringing forth the example of Parmeshwara, one such prince in the fifteenth century. It is certain that the expansion of Islam was a peaceful one. Hamid (p 90) proposes:
”Muslim traders were the first to Islamize the inhabitants of the Archipelago. Later, certain Arabs, especially descendents of the Prophet Muhammad, (may peace be upon him), using the title Sayyad or Sharif, completed the preaching of Isiam either as "priests," " priest princes," or Sultans. Hurgronje has proposed 1200 as the earliest possible date for the Islamization of the peoples of the Malay Archipelago. The very early Islamization was the work of Indians, who had been in contact with the Malay Archipelago for centuries.”
The mystical side of Islam, Sufism offers depth to the adat despite the disapproval of the Sharia at times. It is that side of Islam that Heck describes as the showing of the lived Islam (p 253):
“Sufism - spiritual practice, intellectual discipline, literary tradition, and social institution - has played an integral role in the moral formation of Muslim society. Its aspiration toward a universal kindness to all creatures beyond the requirements of Islamic law has added a distinctly hypernomian dimension to the moral vision of Islam, as evidenced in a wide range of Sufi literature. The universal perspective of Sufism, fully rooted in Islamic revelation, yields a lived (and not just studied) ethics with the potential to view and embrace all creatures through a single ethical vision, regard- less of religious or other affiliation. This side of Islam, both acknowledging and surpassing the outlook of the legal heritage, offers important insight into understanding the nature of Muslim society as both Islamic and meta- Islamic in religious orientation.”
The Sufi inspired side of the lived Islam Hamid suggests served as a backbone to the adoption of Islam in South East Asia, a way to spread the doctrines. In fact he presents scholarly evidence to support his claim (p 97):
“H. John, however, has developed a different theory, maintaining that it is unlikely that Islam was brought to this region by traders, since it is not usual in general to consider merchants as the bearers of religion. It is, however, possible that certain merchants, who belonged to Sufi guilds, were accompanied by their shaykhs, who may have carried out missionary work in the Archipelago. S.Q. Fatimi supports this view in maintaining that the Islamization of this region was the work of Sufis.”
It is in the living Islam today that we can truly observe the influence of Islam in the culture and that we can be able to say that Islam is a local religion of South East Asia. Local religion can be focused on material resources, such as shrines and temples. Asher explores the introduction of shrines in the archipelago, through the unusual situation of a shrine for a Sufi saint Shahul Hamid whose dahrab is where he is buried in Mangore and interestingly is replicated in two locations in South East Asia. This paper explores possible explanations for this replication: (1) the Muslim Tamils carrying Shamil Shahud’s memory across the sea with them, (2) celebrating the ability of the saint to perform miracles, and (3) his ability to protect and dominate over water. It is in the spirit of how Islam was adopted in South East Asia that shows that the adoption of shrines across the sea brought the religion locally.
Local religion can also be a tradition of performance, such as music. In exploring the music of Indonesia, Ramunsen states (p67):
“the origins and practice of the recited Qur'än in Indonesia is the major vehicle for the Arab musical aesthetics. […] Indonesian sacred music beginning with the completely Arab-sounding religious song genre, tawashih, followed by the popular Islamic Malay song genre, the qasidah, as well as the relatively new and Western-influenced genre akapela. [are part of the] musical movement known as gamelan dakwah and discuss the performance of its major progenitor, Emha Ainun Nadjib.”
Through an exploration of the music styles in the backdrop of the reformasi (reform) in Indonesia, Ramunsen explores how music reflects and project nationalist politics as well as it is a part of the ritualistic performance of worship, notably the sound of Arab Islam, in addition to the recitation of the Qur’an.
Last, local religion can be a tradition of performance, such as literature. Soernarto explores the original topic of the comic books of the Wali Songo, the nine sufi saints that are reputed to have brought Islam to Java, portrayed as comic book superheroes, and the impact they have on the population. She explores how they are portrayed, explores the concept of dakwah (preaching about religion to convert people), and how it passed from babad (Javanese text in Chronical form) to comic books. The textual transformation of the nine saints, from Sufi saints to dakwah warriors, promotes the faith amongst the abagnan masses.
In conclusion as we trace back the adoption of Islam through history we can say that the peaceful introduction of Islam came to South East Asia, to the Malay Archipelago to be more precise, through Indian traders. It was these traders that first made contact with the locals, yet it was possibly the Sufis that took the task of introducing the religion to the masses, and it was possibly the rulers that were able to adopt Islam as a religion. Over the centuries the religious adoption brought Sufi saint shrines, poetry that was sung in the villages, dakwah signing that is today sung in the shrines and holy places, popular literature that circulates amongst the abagnan masses. This makes Islam today in Indonesia and in Malaysia, a religion that is a living and evolving religion and thus it can be called a local religion of South East Asia.
Muhammad Saleem Ahmad, “Islam in Southeast Asia: A Study of the Emergence and Growth in Malaysia and Indonesia” (1980), pp. 134-141
Catherine Asher, “The Sufi Shrines of Sahul Hamid in India and Southeast Asia” (2009), pp. 247-258
C. C. Berg, “The Islamisation of Java” (1955), pp. 111-142
Isma’il Hamid, “A Survey of Theories on the Introduction of Islam in the Malay Archipelago” (1982), pp. 89-100
Paul Heck, “Mysticism as Morality: The Case of Sufism” (2006), pp. 353-386
Ermita Soenarto, “From Saints to Superheroes: The Wali Songo Myth in Contemporary Indonesia’s Popular Genres” (2005), pp. 33-82